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BLOG 10 Things to Do on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul

20 June 2016 / Culture

The Famous Istiklal Avenue

Locals say the best way to experience the heart and soul of modern day Istanbul is to wander the 1.4 kilometre stretch of Istiklal Avenue. Known in Turkish as Istiklal Caddesi, it has earned countrywide fame as the country’s busiest street. Initially emerging into the limelight during the Ottoman era when it became the place for creative artists, foreign dignitaries, and intellectuals, to hang out, neglect ensured the downfall of its strong reputation as old houses, worn out buildings, and dirty streets blighted the city landscape.

However, a major re-vamp in the 90s shot it back into fame and a status as one of the most expensive real estate areas in the country. These days, more iconically known for its nostalgic red tram running up and down the centre, it is a major hub for shopping and nightlife, but tourists would do well to look more closely because there is so much more to do than that.

Things to Do on Istiklal Avenue

Starting at the Taksim district, the first most notable landmark, meeting place and favourite photography spot is the 11-metre high Independence Monument that portrays prominent figures from the Turkish War of Independence and the formation of the new Turkish Republic in 1923.

As if walking down Istiklal Avenue towards the Galata district, on the right-hand side, a small archway entrance opens into Flower Passage, a tall domed passageway of small restaurants and traditional Turkish Meyhanes covered with a glass ceiling. Called Çiçek Pasajı in Turkish, this ancient building has a romantic historical timeline as a burnt down theatre and home to Russian women immigrants who sold flowers hence its current name.

A worthy contender for must take photographs is the magnificent architecture of the church of Saint Anthony that still performs Christian services on a Sunday. While the exterior highlights architectural trends from the early 19th century, the French neo-gothic interior style is a humble but majestic dedication to the Christian community of Istanbul.

Mısır Apartmanı, a prominent historic building in the Beyoğlu district of Istiklal Avenue, has hosted many famous people from around the world over the years. Translating into “Egypt Apartment,” its art nouveau architecture dates from 1910, and while its former role was as a home to dignitaries, it is now one of the city’s up and coming leading contemporary art galleries.

Speaking of art, the Pera Museum holds one of the most famous and most expensive pieces in Turkey that is worth taking the slight detour off Istiklal Avenue to see. Situated near to the Mısır Apartmanı, the Pera Museum earns fame as the home of the “Tortoise Trainer” painting by Osman Bey Hamdi that in 2004 sold for a staggering 3.5 million USD. This private collection also has many other historical and modern pieces that delights even novice art enthusiasts. 

Also, close by, nip into the Pera Palas hotel close by for a refreshment break and while there, savour its nostalgic history. Built in 1982, and owned by the Jumeirah chain, it accommodated many members of European high society because it was the first hotel in Turkey to install electricity, and hot running water. Now under the protection of Turkish law as a building of significant cultural heritage, Agatha Christine also made it famous by penning her famous novel, The Orient Express, in one of the rooms. 

Taking a slight detour at the Galatasaray Lisesi, the Çukurcuma district that is a couple of streets back from Istiklal Avenue has two notable reasons to tour it. Firstly, it is home to some weird and wonderful antique shops filled with quirky items from the past. It is also, where Turkey’s most famous male author Orhan Pamuk set up his Museum of Innocence. Named after his novel of the same name, the museum is a marvellous collection of everyday items from the past.

If antiques don’t interest you, but football does, then likewise a short distance from the Lisesi is the Galatasaray Museum. Although listed as a cultural centre, the second floor is entirely dedicated to the game and team that is one of Turkey’s top celebrated and highly respected sports collectives.

French street, aka Cezayir Sokak, is also in this district and is an ideal place to finish your tour, grab refreshments, or even settle down for a romantic evening meal. The narrow street lined with restaurants is slightly resemblant of France but don’t expect French food or service. Instead, enjoy live music in the summer months and a delicious platter of Turkish mezes and fine wine.

Alternatively, head to the end of Istiklal Avenue and drop into the Galata Whirling Dervish Museum. This former Mawlawi house was for many years home to the whirling dervishes that follow Sufism, an ancient sect of Islam. As well as the museum section displaying artefacts, they perform their Sema ritual every evening in the main hall. There is also the option to finish your tour of Istiklal Avenue with an unusual 360 degree of the Istanbul and Golden Horn skyline from the top of Galata tower.

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